Hundreds, maybe thousands, of celebrities have gone into the restaurant business when their careers waned. Their level of direct involvement may be high or low but all these ventures bank on the idea that a famous name will attract customers.
When Evelyn Nesbit opened her NYC tea room in May of 1921 she made sure that her name was prominently displayed. Located on West 52nd street just off Broadway, the sign saying “Evelyn Nesbit’s Specialty Shop” was visible from the theater district’s Great White Way.
She was then in her mid-30s, years away from her peak as a teenage artist’s model [above, age 16], “Gibson Girl,” Floradora showgirl, and millionaire’s wife. Her fame derived not only from her former good looks – from the years her image was displayed everywhere – but also from her involvement in a romantic triangle with prominent architect Stanford White and her insanely jealous husband Harry Thaw. After Thaw shot and killed White in 1906, she became notorious as a witness during the sensational “trial of the century.”
By 1921 she had divorced Thaw, had a son, returned sporadically to the stage, taken up sculpture, published a memoir, and married a second husband from whom she was estranged. Characteristically, she was in debt, owing the equivalent of a year’s income to a dress shop.
Her tea room enjoyed such a short, unsuccessful run that it is hard to learn much about it. Presumably she raised funds from friends to furnish it and pay the $300 monthly rent. She lived in two rooms upstairs. One account described the 100-seat tea room as “super-beautiful” and furnished with rich carpets, Oriental tapestries, and exotic plants, a description at odds with the homey scene in a 1922 photograph shown here.
In several interviews Evelyn made what sound like preposterous claims that she served food available nowhere else. “I am revolutionizing the restaurant business in New York,” she boasted. Her specialties included deep dish apple pie and ice cream which she said she made herself. “I amazed the chef, let me tell you, with what I know about cooking,” she said.
I found it surprising that she claimed to be a good cook; however I did discover that when she left the US for Paris in 1910, surely pregnant with her son, she told friends that she planned to rent a modest apartment on the outskirts of Paris, study sculpture, and do her own cooking. Although she evidently hired someone else to cook for the tea room she said she furnished the recipes and did all the buying.
Things went wrong fast. During the first six months she (barely) survived three robberies, one kidnap attempt, one suicide attempt, and eviction for nonpayment of rent. On a second try in January of 1922 she was successfully evicted, after which she returned to cabaret dancing. In 1926, while performing at Chicago’s Moulin Rouge, she tried to kill herself again by swallowing Lysol. Her troubled brother took his own life two years later.
But Evelyn achieved happiness in later life and lived on to age 81. She moved to Southern California near her three grandchildren and their father, a pilot for Douglas Aircraft. She returned to her lifelong interest in art, teaching sculpture and ceramics at a community center. Easing her constant need for money, she received a $10,000 bequest when Thaw died in 1947 and was paid more than $50,000 for use of her life story in the 1955 movie “The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing.”
After many years away, she visited New York in 1955, reflecting on the great meals she had eaten during her heyday. Passing the former location of Sherry’s, she recalled “the wonderful terrapin they served.” She expressed surprise that she had managed to stay slim in her youth. “I ate so much in the old days I still wonder why I didn’t get fat,” she said referring to another performer’s, Lillian Russell’s, “upholstered” appearance. Heading off to a restaurant dinner, the ever-unsentimental Evelyn confessed, “You know what I really want to see most in New York? A nice big broiled Maine lobster.”
© Jan Whitaker, 2012